WASHINGTON — Just when you thought you'd seen the last of the ceaseless television attack ads, and the campaign signs were finally coming down, there are faint stirrings about the 2012 Washington state Senate race and whether Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, with only $312,000 in the bank, is vulnerable.
Cantwell, her staff and even some Republicans think she won't have any trouble raising what she needs, even though she doesn't accept money from political action committees. She had about the same amount of money at the same point in her last re-election effort and went on to raise roughly $14 million in two years.
"It's not a problem," Cantwell said in an interview. "Now we need to get busy."
There are some cautions.
"An incumbent without a lot of money is not that intimidating," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the Cook Political Report who tracks Senate and other races.
And the financial bar could be higher in 2012.
Even though the final numbers won't be available until the end of the year, the just concluded Senate race in which incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray beat GOP challenger Dino Rossi cost nearly $40 million combined.
Murray raised more than $12.4 million and Rossi about $6.4 million, according to the latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Independent groups, including political party committees and newly formed groups that don't have to disclose their donors, spent another $19.6 million, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit watchdog group.
Money aside, even some top Republicans think Cantwell is in a good position as she seeks re-election.
"A lot of people will say if you couldn't beat Murray in a Republican wave, what makes you think you can beat Cantwell," said Chris Vance, a former chairman of the state GOP turned political analyst.
Vance said he realized Cantwell might not have a lot of campaign cash on hand now, but he added that she could always use her own resources. Before being elected to the Senate in 2000, Cantwell was an executive with a high-tech company. Her campaign still owes her nearly $2.2 million from a personal loan she made during her first campaign.
Duffy said she doesn't feel Cantwell is among the top five most vulnerable Senate Democrats.
"She may not even be in the top 10," Duffy said. "Washington state is tough for Republicans."
Democrats are defending 21 seats in 2012 and Republicans just 10. Two independents who generally caucus with the Democrats are also up.
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna could be the strongest Republican candidate in a statewide race, but Vance said everyone expects him to run for governor and not the Senate.
"We'll likely have a red hot race for governor and a not so hot race for the Senate," he said.
Other possibilities to challenge Cantwell include the four Republican House members from Washington state: Dave Reichert, Doc Hastings, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and newly-elected Jaime Herrera. But Vance said few believe any of the four will run. Tea party supporter Clint Didier and John Stanton, a former telecom executive, are also mentioned, Vance said.
"The bench isn't real deep," he said.
Ron Dotzauer, a political strategist who ran Cantwell's 2000 campaign, said it will also help that President Barack Obama will top the ballot in Washington state, where he is still fairly popular.
Cantwell should also benefit from what is likely to be a stronger economy and the Republicans' focus on the governor's race, he said.
"They haven't had a governor in Washington state in almost three decades," he said.
As for money, Dotzauer said Cantwell "knows how to raise it."
Cantwell said there is one lesson she took from the Democratic losses in this election — jobs, jobs, jobs.
"We ought to spend every moment thinking about jobs," she said.
To emphasize her point, Cantwell pulled a quote from an op-ed by Bob Herbert that appeared in the New York Times almost a year ago, made copies and literally taped them to the walls around her office suite as a reminder to her staff.
The quote reads: "The Democrats still hold the presidency and large majorities in both houses of Congress. The idea that they are not spending every waking hour trying to fix the broken economic system and put suffering Americans back to work is beyond pathetic."
Cantwell had pushed for passage of legislation designed to provide $30 billion in credit to stimulate small businesses, legislation that was approved by Congress and signed by the president just before the election despite Republican efforts to defeat it.
"Having been in the private sector, I know government doesn't create jobs," she said. "But the government has policies that can help."
The senator also has been a key backer of legislation to provide tax breaks and other incentives to spur development of such alternative energy sources as wind and solar. She said green energy could be a $6 trillion sector.
"It will be bigger than the Internet," she said, adding that it's one area where there could be incredible employment opportunities ranging from engineering to actually building wind turbines and solar arrays. "We are talking about millions of jobs."
With mounting concern about the federal deficit, Cantwell said some of the health care reforms Congress approved earlier this year should help to reduce federal Medicare spending. She singled out programs to encourage older people to stay in their homes rather than moving to nursing homes and beginning to restructure Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors.
"During the campaign, Republicans said we were cutting Medicare," she said. "Now they come back and say we should cut Medicare and suggest vouchers."
Cantwell said it was critical that the housing foreclosure mess be resolved, and she called for improvements to a federal program originally designed to help those struggling to pay their mortgages.
"We are not California, Nevada or Florida, but we have still been hurt by this," she said.
Cantwell admits the next two years could be tough ones in Congress, with the prospect of even more gridlock given the new GOP majority in the House and increased GOP numbers in the Senate. But she said the message from voters in the last election was pretty straightforward.
"People are expecting us to get things done," Cantwell said.
McClatchy Newspapers 2010